So here’s the problem:

Workers in remote locations are especially prone to mental health problems. Yet their remote location makes it hard for them to access support.

SMART researcher Dr Shiva Pedram has a long history of working with the coal mining industry and developing virtual reality applications for their training needs.

Now she has turned her attention to mental health and she successfully received funding ($45K) from Coal Mines Insurance, Mines Rescue and Advantage SME

“All around the world, there are miners and other workers who are working far from big cities,’’ she says.

“In any workplace there are going to be issues such as bullying, PTSD, anxiety or depression, yet there is no or very limited professional support for those working in remote locations.”

Dr Shiva Pedram

Dr Pedram has just completed the first phase of a project to deliver psychotherapy to workers by linking them up with psychologist via a VR headset (Oculus Go).

The study compared the experiences of 30 ‘clients’ (aged between 20-70 years old) who participated in both VR and Skype-based mock counselling sessions (delivered by trained psychotherapists).   she then used pre- and post-counselling questionnaires followed by face to face interviews to investigate participants’ counselling experience in both Skype and VR.

Overall, VR was found to outperform Skype as a therapeutic tool, in part because participants had a heightened sense of presence (being there in the room with the therapist).It was also more powerful in building client engagement , and – crucially – client commitment to the therapy. This is very important because, the rates of early treatment termination appears to be considerably higher for remote workers when they were using other technological interventions due to lack of engagement and commitment.

“Our findings suggest that using VR may reduce dropouts and produce more positive clinical outcomes,” Dr Pedram said.

One surprising finding of the study was that some participants actually preferred that the interaction was with an avatar of the psychologist, rather than actual therapist.

“One participant – someone with an outgoing personality – told me how they knew someone was listening to them, but the fact that they couldn’t see them liberated them from the fear of being judged,” she said.

Next year, the project will embark on second phase, with updated equipment (Oculus Quest VR Headset) that will accurately replicate hand movements.

In addition, Dr Pedram will monitor clients’ physiological reactions to counselling sessions, such as skin conductance and heart rate monitor, to gain a more accurate idea of the efficiency of the approach.